Child sex abuse victims rally at Capitol as reform bill awaits

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- More than 4,000 blue flags line State Street and the steps leading up to the Pennsylvania State Capitol, planted in the dirt and flying to honor survivors of child sex abuse.

April in Child Abuse Prevention Month. On Monday, one of its biggest supporters, State Representative Mark Rozzi, was picking up where he left off last session: advocating for stronger reforms in Pennsylvania's statute of limitation laws.

Rozzi (D-Berks) was a victim of sexual abuse when he was a child. Now, an outspoken critic of the state's current laws, Rozzi was joined Monday by dozens of fellow child sex abuse victims; mothers, fathers, and adults who shared their stories on the Capitol steps of how they, or their children, were victimized years ago.

On Tuesday, the State House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear and vote on Senate Bill 261. The legislation, sponsored by President Senator Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), would eliminate the statute of limitations on criminal prosecution of child sex abuse cases. SB261 would also give child victims until age 50 to bring a civil lawsuit against institutions, such as the church, or a school.

The bill unanimously passed the Senate, 48-0.

"Strengthening laws as they relate to child sexual abuse was an issue that was promptly taken up by the Senate when the legislative session began in January," Sen. Scarnati said Monday in a statement. "It is a constitutionally sound bill."

The constitutionality of statute of limitations reform is at the center of the debate between what senators have approved and what Rozzi wants to change. Scarnati, and other senators, do not believe Rozzi's provision, which would give victims the ability to retroactively sue abusers at any age, is constitutional.

Their argument stems from last session, after Rozzi's House Bill 1947, which included the retroactive clause, passed the House with bipartisan support, 180-15. However, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, then-Solicitor General Bruce Castor deemed the retroactive changes unconstitutional.

The retroactive language was gutted from the bill, and nothing was agreed upon before the session term expired.

Rozzi says nothing has changed this session.

"Any bill that passes out (of committee) without a retroactive provision for past victims of child sex abuse is a raw deal," he said at Monday's rally.

Rozzi expects SB261 to get amended in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. If it isn't, he added, language including the retroactivity clause will be introduced on the House floor in the coming weeks. Rozzi says he still believes he has bipartisan support of House members.

According to Rozzi, Scarnati indicated all parts of his bill are up for negotiation, except discussions about retroactive lawsuits.